One of Papua New Guinea’s most prominent social media users is also one of its most prominent politicians. Police Minister Bryan Kramer etched out a profile as one of the country’s most recognisable figures first as a blogger, then as a vocal opposition MP, and now as a member of the executive.
And the increasing responsibility hasn’t blunted his social media presence. He continues to post about political issues, government decisions and opposition political plays.
His Kramer Report page is by far the most-liked* facebook page for any politician in the country.
|Bryan Kramer (Kramer Report)
|PM James Marape
Where Kramer has tread, other politicians are following.
More Governors, Ministers and MPs are using Facebook as a way of communicating directly with their constituents and the nation. Some are doing this from their personal accounts, such as the former deputy prime minister Charles Abel who posts personal notes about his travels in his electorate to a local Facebook group.
Other MPs are using public pages to post about projects in their electorates, or to comment on current affairs.
As part of the Lowy Institute’s research on social media use in PNG, we use the Facebook-owned analytical tool CrowdTangle to track more than 50 active pages linked to MPs among more than 650 public pages we follow. We’re regularly seeing posts from the politicians’ pages rank among the highest for audience interactions in the country each week.
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Sometimes these posts are getting big audiences because they’re part of the big political issues of the day. And sometimes these posts are getting big audiences because the posters are using Facebook’s advertising tools to increase their prominence.
This is not a criticism. PNG’s constitution ensures freedom of speech and MPs have been frequent users of paid advertising in the media to promote themselves, their projects, and their messages. On Facebook, the paid nature of these advertisements is not hidden – they’re marked as “sponsored” when they appear in a user’s news feed.
It seems timely for digital platforms such as Facebook to bring their tougher transparency rules to PNG.
However, there is a difference between an advertisement in a newspaper or TV program and the appearance of a “sponsored” political post appearing among the items in a Facebook user’s personal feed. When it comes to politics, users deserve as much transparency as possible.
After sustained criticism over misuse of its platform around elections including the 2016 US Presidential election and Brexit, Facebook has been working to make the use of advertising on its platform more transparent. New rules governing political advertising have been progressively introduced, with advertisers in some countries required to verify their identity and include declarations on advertisements, and a copy of the ads maintained in Facebook’s ad library archive. Australia is among a group of more than 30 countries that will become subject to the rules soon.
PNG is not yet part of that group, but it should be.
While the takeup of social media in PNG lags other countries in the Pacific, it is an ever-more influential factor in political discourse.
|Internet users (% pop.)
|Social media users
(% of internet users)
|Papua New Guinea
The PNG politicians who are using advertising tools appear to be getting good returns on their investment.
One example: Police Minister Kramer recently posted some pithy political commentary, rebuffing some opposition criticism of him amid the government’s coronavirus response. He made the post from his Kramer Report page – which would have already generated a significant audience given it has more than 130,000 likes.
Then, the page boosted the post using Facebook’s advertising tools. Five days later, the post had gained around 13,000 interactions – a measure of the number of people who either like, react, share or comment on the post. That made it by far the most interacted-with post of any from a public page in the country that week. It was double the interactions for a post from Prime Minister James Marape; and three times the audience for the highest-ranked post by a media organisation. It was also four times the result for another post the minister made in the same week.
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We’ve seen other MPs using advertising tools in recent months including Central Governor Robert Agarobe; Moresby South MP Justin Tkatchenko and Lae MP John Rosso. Their posts have included promotions for projects in their electorates, personal profiles and public health campaigns.
Those uses are so far benign, but it’s not difficult to imagine how these sorts of tools could be used in the heat of a political campaign. As politicians become more adept at using the platform, it’s likely they will become more focused on how they use its messaging potential.
And that’s before you include the actions of unscrupulous players who might set up fake accounts to promote stories or pages using the same tools.
Therefore, it seems timely for digital platforms such as Facebook to bring their tougher transparency rules to PNG. More detailed and prominent “paid for by” declarations on political advertisements would increase transparency for users. Keeping ads in the archive would mean it’s possible to see who has been advertising on particular issues. This would allow citizens to judge the participants in the debates going on in the country’s parliament and public life.
As well as the platforms taking action, PNG’s politicians should take steps to update the rules on political advertising and make it clear that declarations are essential when it comes to digital advertising.
The case for action in PNG is pressing. The country will head to elections in 2022, and intending candidates will already be thinking about how to boost their profile before the coming campaign.
More transparency in how the country’s political players use digital media will strengthen confidence in the political system in one of the world’s most active democracies.
* An earlier version of this story made referenced to Facebook followers. The correct measure tracked by CrowdTangle is page likes.